An era in education could be ending — perhaps.
President Barack Obama told the country last week that educational testing had gone too far — and recommended that students only spend about 2 percent of classroom time taking a standardized test. As with most recommendations coming from Washington, there’s even an acronym for the recommendation: TAP or Testing Action Plan.
As The New York Times reported, “the administration’s move seemed a reckoning on a two-decade push that began during the Bush administration and intensified under President Obama. Programs with aspirational names — No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top — were responding to swelling agreement among Democrats and Republicans that higher expectations and accountability could lift the performance of American students, who chronically lag their peers in other countries on international measures, and could help close a chronic achievement gap between black and white students.”
Despite the best intentions, improvement has not always occurred and the achievement gap seems as intractable as ever. What has happened — just listen to the voices of children and parents and teachers — is that the school day has become more regimented and less interesting, and learning has been centered on what will be on the tests.
As education expert Robert Pondisco writes in U.S. News and World Report: “When parents complain, rightfully so, about over-testing, what they are almost certainly responding to is not the tests themselves, which take up a vanishingly small amount of class time, but the effects of test-and-prep culture, which has fundamentally changed the experience of schooling for our children, and not always for the better.”
A senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Pondisco writes and speaks extensively on education and reform. He gets at the crux of the testing dilemma: “It’s all well and good to ‘encourage’ states, districts and schools to limit testing, but as long as test-driven accountability measures, which are driven substantially by federal law, are used not to provide feedback to parents and other stakeholders but to trigger corrective measures in schools, it won’t matter if children take two tests or 2000; the effects will be the same.”
Tests will take over the classroom, in other words.
Yet measures of achievement, whether the reading skills of fourth-graders or the math proficiency of high school students, remain less than inspiring, especially when compared to other industrialized nations. Graduation rates are getting better, though, with the U.S. rate at 81 percent, an all-time high. Still, New Mexico was one of five states that saw a decline in graduation rates last year, down to 75.6 percent. We continue to struggle.
Locally, Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Joel Boyd told the Board of Education earlier this week that our students already are following the president’s recommendation of keeping testing to about 2 percent of classroom time.
We’d argue, as we have before, that simply measuring the time spent taking the test does not account for how the tests are actually delivered. From practice test-taking, to too many teachers focusing on the tests as the end goal, to the makeup tests that also can interrupt class time, the impact of standardized testing is bigger than just a few days a year.
No one should be calling for no standards or for no test taking. It’s important to measure student success and progress. Yet taking that measure should not become the way to penalize teachers or stigmatize schools.
If, as a nation, we are saying goodbye to this culture of labeling students, schools and their teachers as failures because of tests, President Obama’s speech could be seen as a turning point. We can move from No Child Left Behind to Common CoreState Standards to PARCC — Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers — to finally, Testing in its Place. That would be a good day in education.